Book Review: A Man’s Search for Meaning

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

~ Viktor E. Frankl, A Man’s Search for Meaning

I recently joined a book club, and the book for my first session was A Man’s Search for Meaning, a book I had purchased many months ago and never got around to. It is one that I knew I would enjoy given its psychological and existential themes, and it did not disappoint. I learned much from this short yet powerful book, and its relevance is everlasting.

Viktor Frankl’s experience in the furnace of human suffering gave rise to insights into the human condition that I don’t believe would have been possible without such conditions and circumstance. The first half of the book details his experiences in the Nazi death camps, as well as the psychological and existential questions that were posed to the inmates. His experience as a psychologist not only gave him an advantage in surviving such a trial, but allowed him to write the book from a unique and invaluable perspective: his knowledge of human nature and keen awareness of psychological phenomena, coupled with a first-hand experience, provided him with an almost scientific lens through which to view the suffering of the death camps.

He mentions the kapo’s, prisoners assigned to supervise forced labour or carry out administrative tasks in exchange for special privileges, who in their desire for survival would abandon their moral compass to achieve it, inflicting pain and death on their fellow inmates. They chose to maximize their chance of survival, and in doing so abandon all that brings us together, all that is good in humanity. His theory of logotherapy, which suggests that the search for a meaning in life is the primary motivational force of the individual, was actually theorized prior to his internment. Through such a unfathomable life struggle he was forced to put his theory to the test, inadvertently allowing him to develop it further. He states that life has meaning under all circumstances, even in unimaginable suffering. This became even more clear to him during his experience in the death camps: despite the seemingly hopeless conditions, certain individuals were able to bear such a burden admirably, maintaining their goodness and will to live, whilst others simply gave up and resigned themselves to their fate, seeing no need to fight on.

“With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became a subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment — not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just laid there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or do anything to help himself. He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him anymore.”

~ Viktor E. Frankl, A Man’s Search for Meaning

In the second half of the book, he expands on his theory and details how we can find our meaning in life, which is undoubtedly a difficult task, especially in modern society. He suggests three primary paths: through meaningful work and deeds; through experiencing something or encountering someone (i.e. relationships); and through the attitude one takes towards unavoidable suffering. This model and attitude toward life has aided me in finding my own meaning. Suffering in life comes inexplicably: just ask Job. But when one’s day-to-day life is oriented towards meaningful work and fulfilling relationships, it is possible to bear the tragedy of life nobly, to face life upright with your head held high despite it’s inevitable twists and turns. And as he shows us in the book, one can find a meaning to life even in unavoidable and terrible suffering.

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

~ Viktor E. Frankl, A Man’s Search for Meaning

I would highly recommend this book. I think it is one of those which I may need to revisit every few years to re-assess my direction in life and remind myself of its powerful message.


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